Wednesday, 5 February 2014


I think it is Hegel who remarks that the history of the world is the judgment of the world. The meaning of that is that, in the course of its long process, Time sifts the chaff from the wheat, separates truth from evil, and passes judgment upon men and institutions on their own merits. The truth of this is signally evident in the case of Thomas Paine.

In the minds of our great grand fathers the name of Paine was associated with all that was anarchical, if not diabolical. In some respects his influence was considered to be more baneful even than Napoleon's. Napoleon was viewed as the enemy of this country, but Paine was looked upon as the enemy of the social, political, and religious order. Tories and Whigs, orthodox religionists, and Unitarians agreed in denouncing Thomas Paine as the arch-enemy of all that was stable and sacred in civilisation. Biographies were written of him by men whose minds were steeped in prejudice, and in some cases in malignity, with the result that up till recent times there was nothing to represent Paine but grotesque caricatures. Even a judicious writer like the late Sir Leslie Stephen, in this country, was imposed upon by these caricatures, and in modern times it was left to two men — J. M. Robertson, M.P., and the late Moncure Conway — to reveal Paine to the present generation in his true features. From correspondence I had with Sir Leslie Stephen, I know he felt keenly the attack of Robertson. He was a fair-minded man, and, no doubt, regretted his unhappy references to Paine in his "English Thought in the Eighteenth Century."
Moncure Conway's magnificent tribute to the memory of Paine, in the form of two able and painstaking volumes, published in 1802, revealed to the world the real Paine as a man of genius, of high ideals, of absolute sincerity, of indomitable courage, of boundless zeal, of untiring industry — a man, above all, animated by the enthusiasm of humanity. It is satisfactory to find that, in commemoration of the death of Paine in 1800, a cheap edition of Conway's book is being published, so that a true portrait of him will be within reach of the humblest reader in the land. In his satirical way, Carlyle remarks that Paine, having freed America with his famous pamphlet, "Common Sense," was resolved to free this whole world, and perhaps the other! Paine, in truth, was a pioneer of what is now termed humanitarism. The spirit of humanity is not so modern as we are apt to imagine. Readers of Lecky's "History of England" will remember the dark picture he paints of the inhumanity of the times in which Paine lived. Conway tells us that "when Paine was a lad, the grand gentleman who purloined parks and mansions from the Treasury were sending children to the gallows for small thefts instigated by hunger." In his thirteenth year he might have seen, under the shadow of Ely Minster, ten miles away, the execution of Amy Hutchinson, aged seventeen, for poisoning her husband. "Her face and hands were smeared with tar, and having a garment daubed with pitch. After a short prayer, she was denounced as a Quaker, and the executioner strangled her, and twenty minutes after the fire was kindled, and burnt half an hour."
Outside of the Quakers, to which sect Paine belonged, no protest against the savagery of the times was raised. We shall never understand Paine if we look upon him as a revolutionist filled with a passion for overturning thrones and churches. His career is only reduced to intelligible consistency when we recognise that the improving and driving force behind his social, political and religious activities was an overmastering passion for humanity. His pamphlet,"Common Sense," which is universally acknowledged to have been a potent factor in the American Revolution, had a wider aim than the substitution of Republicanism for Monarchy. He looked beyond conferring a boon on the American citizen. A strong opponent of slavery, he said to the framers of the American Constitution, "Forget not the hapless African." It is a significant fact that a paragraph in favor of the abolition of slavery in America, which is surmised to have been inserted through Paine's influence, in the "Declaration of Independence" was struck out. Why? Be cause Georgia and South Carolina wanted slaves, and the Northerners were interested in supplying them! Had Paine's humane suggestion been adopted the United State would have been saved the agony and bloody sweat of the Civil War."
Paine's career reads like a romance. No sooner does the French Revolution break out than he hastens to enter upon the great task of what Heine has called the liberation of humanity. And here, too, we find in Paine united two qualities which were rare in the eighteenth century — political sagacity and humanity. It is now admitted that the execution of Louis XVI. was not a crime, but a blunder. Paine was the spokesman of the few who pleaded for mercy. The result of his intervention on behalf of Louis was that he was thrown into prison, and was marked for the guillotine. He occupied what he believed to be his last hours in writing "The Age of Reason." The extraordinary manner in which he escaped his expected doom had better be given in his own words : —

"One hundred and sixty-eight persons were taken out of the Luxembourg in one night, and a hundred and sixty of them guillotined next day, of which I knew I was to be one ; and the manner I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident. The room in which I lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall, so that when it was opened the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three companions, fellow-prisoners with me — Joseph Vanhuile, of Burges, since President of the municipality of that town ; Michael and Robbins Bastini, of Louvan. When persons by scores and by hundreds were to be taken out of the prison for the guillotine it was always done in the night, and those who performed that had a private mark or signal by which they knew what rooms to go to and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked, unobserved by us, with that number in chalk ; but it happened, if happening is the proper word, that the mark was not on when the inside door was open, and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the Destroying Angel passed by it."

The publication of "The Age of Reason " intensified the hatred against Paine. In England he found himself the victim of State persecutions ; in America many of his old friends, not caring to incur religious, as well as political odium, separated from him ; while in France he found himself the victim of all kinds of suspicions. Meanwhile, in the cause of liberty and humanity, he toiled bravely. The great profits that came to him from his writings he devoted to the cause of humanity with a profusion that left him at times in severe financial straits. Believing that he was engaged in the sacred war of humanity, Paine refused to make money out of his pamphlets, or take what he considered to be the wages of a hireling. He actually donated the copyright of his pamphlet, "Common Sense," to America for the cause of Independence, likewise of his pamphlet, "The Crisis." In the words of Conway, "peace found Paine a penniless patriot, eating his crust contentedly, when he might easily have had fifty thousand pounds in his pockets."

Paine was not only a pioneer in humanity, but also in political and social reform. In the words of Conway, "he was the first to advocate international arbitration ; the first to expose the absurdity and criminality of duelling ; the first to plead for the animals ; the first to demand justice for woman " ; and, I may add, the first to advocate old-age pensions. It is a hundred years since Thomas Paine died. The dust which unfair controversy raised has long since been laid, and the din long silenced. The wheel of Time has come round full circle. Men of all sorts and conditions are now willing to do justice to the man who, in the midst of great obstacles and with unflinching and self-sacrificing purpose, held aloft the lighted torch of humanitarianism, and passed it on to succeeding generations. — Hector McPherson, in T.P.'s Weekly.

 People 14 August 1909,

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